Thoughts on parashat Miketz.

The story of Joseph is, to some extent, a story of meritocracy. We cannot deny that he was accompanied by Divine providence (or luck, as some would prefer to say), nevertheless the text of the Torah provides us with clear evidence that Joseph earned his position in Egypt:  

So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has made all this known to you, there is none so discerning and wise as you. You shall be in charge of my court, and by your command shall all my people be directed; only with respect to the throne shall I be superior to you.” Pharaoh further said to Joseph, “See, I put you in charge of all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 41:39-41)

Pharaoh made him the ruler of the entire country and de facto the second person after the pharaoh himself. To use contemporary language: what mattered in Joseph’s nomination process was his skills, not his identity; we can actually say that he was chosen despite his identity – ancient Hebrews were by no means equal to Egyptians in Egyptian society and this idea is openly expressed in the Torah. 

I am not saying that the verses I just quoted talk about some accepted and widely respected norm in ancient Egyptian society. There are many verses in the Hebrew Bible that prove the opposite. Historically speaking throughout the Pharaonic period (2055-1650 BCE), only a very small percentage of the Egyptian population was literate. The elites were generally educated and literate, as were the children of government officials. This group of people was never more than one or two percent of the population. Literacy was vital to government work in Egyptian society and thus, although Egypt was a meritocratic society in theory, in practice the poor were prevented from social advancement by illiteracy. Meritocracy was known as a value in some other philosophically sophisticated cultures like, Ancient Greece or ancient, medieval and premodern China: it is the foundation of Confucian political philosophy that dominated the chinese culture and thought since ancient times till the beginning of the 20th century when they embraced the most deadly form of Marxism – Maoism – that resulted in 40 to 80 million victims due to starvation, persecution, prison labor and mass executions. 

Meritocracy is one of the fundamental values in Judaism too; we express a moral version of it in the second paragraph of our daily Sh’ma v’ahavta. I’m not saying that meritocracy is a perfect principle of social governance. It has its limitations and our tradition was probably the first that noticed that. For this reason the Torah brings a few categories of people that should not be judged according to their merit because they may not have one: widows, orphans, strangers and other people that for some reasons became disadvantaged. Therefore we need to always be aware of the limits of meritocracy, of the fact that it’s not a perfect principle and that it may bring injustice. 

However, what we have done in America (and in some other parts of the Western world), over the last few decades is a complete abolition of meritocracy, at least in some realms of our life, in favor of identity as a decisive factor, namely, the complete opposite of what the quoted verses of the Torah seem to suggest. One of the results of that is, as I believe, this: 

The demand to center Israel’s right to ‘self-defense’ erases the colonial context and delegitimizes the Palestinian right to resistance and to self-defense, both principles enshrined in international law. It also neglects non-violent tactics and campaigns, such as BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions), and civil disobedience that Palestinians have used for decades to dismantle the system around them. We stand in solidarity with a growing chorus of voices in the US media, in universities, activists and social movements, and with progressive political leaders in the US government. With them, we demand an end to the US’ long-standing military, economic, and diplomatic support for unchecked Israeli anti-Palestinian violence. We are in awe of the Palestinian struggle to resist violent occupation, removal, erasure, and the expansion of Israeli settler colonialism. As faculty at an institution committed to the principles of social justice and academic excellence, particularly those of us who study and teach about the Middle East or Racism, we endorse the Palestine and Praxis call to action.

This paragraph comes from the open letter “We stand in Solidarity with the Palestinian People” issued by Rutgers University, which ranks 40th in the American university ranking and 50th in the world ranking. The letter was written by a tenured professor and the head The Center for Security, Race and Rights of this university. The letter was signed by 185 of its professors, from literally all the faculties, including the faculty of History and Political Science (!).  

I will repeat the beginning of it: Israel’s right to ‘self-defense’ erases the colonial context and delegitimizes the Palestinian right to resistance and self-defense. Israel, the Jewish state, is a violent, settler colonial state that basically has no right to exist. There is no trace of any knowledge about the history of the region nor about the current political situation there. This a complete intellectual and moral bankruptcy. The people who signed this letter are simply incompetent, both intellectually and morally. One might say they have to be competent in something; they are university professors after all. I would argue that competent people don’t make definitive statements, like signing letters like that, about things they have no clue about.  

I’m sure you heard congressional hearings of the three presidents of the Ivy league universities, their doubling down and refusal of institutional condemnation of calls for genocide of the Jewish People. You probably heard about Russell Rickford, an associate professor of history at Cornell University who said that the mass murder done by Hamas on October 7th was “exhilarating” and “energizing”. It’s all just the tip of the iceberg. Just weeks before the massacre Penn hosted a Palestine Rights Literature Festival; the event featured Marc Lamont Hill who was fired from CNN for calling for the destruction of the State of Israel. It included a member of the Palestinian youth movement which has collaborated with Palestinian terrorists as well as Roger Waters, completely deranged former Pink Floyd vocalist who is known for publicly using anti-Jewish slurs, desecrating the memory of Anne Frank, has dressed up as a Nazi and floated pig balloons with the Star of David at many of his concerts. Why in the world would they host someone like that on college campuses?      

It’s not just antisemitism and hate. It’s all profoundly stemming from grim ignorance, intellectual laziness and depraved moral relativism actively promoted at many of the educational institutions in America. It’s a result of decades of brainwashing and moral rot in these institutions, that resulted in accepting corrupt financial deals with sponsors from countries that are the enemies of the US and the West in general. Who is to blame for that? Primarily – incompetent and morally corrupt leadership, incompetent teachers and professors with very poor judgment. 

This mixture of ignorance, intellectual corruption and moral relativism is going to kill us. Education is a fundamental value in Judaism and so is the rule of law. We must do something about it. We may have different opinions about the root causes of this situation but certainly we can all agree that something is deeply wrong with contemporary American (and Western) academia. I am not in a position to tell you what to do exactly. I’m just a Rabbi. My role is to anchor our actions in the Torah and in our tradition to provide moral and intellectual support for our actions in this matter. Therefore, I urge us to do everything in our power to contribute to a profound reform of these educational institutions or the creation of new, alternative ones that will provide young generations with proper education, in every field. We actually have no choice in this matter, we must fix this system otherwise our life will drift towards something that will ultimately become unbearable. As one of my mentors, Barbara Spectre, repeatedly said: The greatest idolatry is to accept the world as it is. Our tradition fundamentally teaches us to choose life but it also fundamentally instructs us to elevate it through all values and means we have. This philosophical concept underlies, as I believe, its every Jewish moral teaching and leaves us actually no other choice than the eternal strive to make the world a better place, against all odds.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Mirski 

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